Last week we posted a slightly tongue in cheek article on the rise of robotics in modern manufacturing. Now, we’ve come across a real-life example where robots are having a material impact in the highly masculine world of iron ore mining.
What do you do when the sales price of your product fall and your wage costs relentlessly rise? Why, get rid of your workers, that’s what! Joking aside, that’s exactly what Rio Tinto, one of the world’s largest iron ore miners, has been working on since December 2008. Rio claims they have the first major deployment of autonomous trucks anywhere in the world.
The firm started trials with five in 2008 and is now operating 53 of them across three mines: Yandicoogina, Nammuldi and Hope Downs 4 in Australia. From a quiet low key beginning the company has just announced the 200 millionth ton moved by robo-trucks last month at its Yandicoogina mine in Pilbara, Australia.
The Wall Street Daily speculates that in the not-too-distant future, we may see mines operated without miners as the benefits become more clear. Rio cites lower staff costs and administration, avoidance of problems due to tiredness, sickness and variable performance resulting in fuel savings, increased schedule reliability and earlier identification of bottlenecks in the operation.
There are now some 200 robotrucks or Autonomous Haulage Trucks (AHT) operating in Australia although Rio is the front runner working with Komatsu ADR of Japan. The manufacturer’s 930E Front Runner diesel-electric trucks, similar to a locomotive unit – are capable of moving 300 tons apiece and Komatsu works with General Electric which produce the engines. Rio has plans to take on another 150 of Komatsu’s 930E AHTs as it rolls the program out further.
Rio’s rival BHP Biliton, meanwhile, works with Caterpillar operating about 15 of CAT’s MineStar 240-ton vehicles in the Pilbara. Rio’s AHTs are usually operated from a control center at the mine site, but are part of a wider automated system of trains and handling equipment that can all be controlled centrally from Perth, a thousand miles away.
As the technology develops, and rapid advances in sensors, GPS and radar are spurring the technology on, it holds open the prospect of mines being operated in ever more hostile environments and, surprising as it may sound, reducing the environmental impact of mine sites as much smaller communities of humans will be needed to oversee operations than has traditionally been the case.